September 11, 2010 at 12:10 pm (Reflection)

I was fifteen years old on September 11th, 2001. When the planes hit the towers, I was probably in English class, though in the confusion of the immediate aftermath no one in the school knew anything for at least another hour. During 4th period chemistry class, an announcement came over the intercom from the principal: all students whose parents worked in the World Trade Center were to come to the library. That’s when we knew something was wrong.

I lived in New Jersey, in a town with a big commuter population. Lots of kids’ parents worked in downtown NYC. We were all worried when the announcement came, but our chemistry teacher, looking nervous, just said, “A plane hit one of the towers. It was probably an accident.” We continued with class.

Fifth period was lunch. I sat with my friends as a second announcement declared all after-school activities canceled for the day. Rumors flew around the cafeteria, and I heard the word “terrorists” thrown out for the first time. My friend Lauren, who knew no more about the situation than I did, yelled, “Damn you, terrorists! You made them cancel band practice!” We all laughed.

It wasn’t until 6th period history that I got information. I will always be thankful to my 10th grade history teacher, Mrs. Tomczyk, for going against the school’s orders and giving us details. We didn’t have live TV in our classrooms, and the only way we were going to learn anything was if a teacher told us. Mrs. Tomczyk believed we had a right to know, and so she closed the door and told us.

When she said the towers had fallen, I let out a sharp laugh. I didn’t think it was funny, of course. But my instinctive physical reaction was one of disbelief. Gone? How could they be gone? At the time, we still didn’t know how severe the damage would be to the rest of the downtown area. A completely apocalyptic image surfaced in my mind, and it’s still one I hold, even years later. We spent the whole class discussing what happened, acting as support for each other. We didn’t learn history that day. We were living it.

The next period was gym, but I didn’t stay — my mom came and picked me up from school. She’s a volunteer at heart, and she wanted to be there at the elementary and middle schools to help the kids who might not have anyone to go home to. So she wanted me and my younger brother to be home first and foremost, so she would be free to help others. I planted myself in front of the TV and watched the news, and saw the images for the first time.

My history homework that night was to read Patrick Henry’s most famous speech. “Give me liberty, or give me death.” I cried.

I did not personally know anyone killed in the attacks. But one of my best friends lost a cousin. A girl a year below me, who’d lived in my neighborhood and worked with me on the school newspaper, lost her older brother. The tragedy was very immediate in our town, and we’re lucky we didn’t lose more people.

So though it’s been 9 years, and all that’s happened since has been hard to separate from the memories of that day, it’s still vivid in my mind, and still horrifying. I still feel ill on this day, morose and contemplative. And I thought it might be best for me to share that. This is the first 9/11 I’ve spent outside of New Jersey, and I find myself wishing I was on the east coast, to share the experience with others who lived it like I did. But, since I can’t do that, I felt I should at least share my experience with all of you.

The day after the attacks, an AP reporter came into that same history classroom to write an article about student reaction. The article is only available behind a paywall now — and is, frankly, some pretty terrible journalism — but I long ago copied and pasted it into a document, and I share it now, below the cut, for posterity.

Sayreville students cope with grief, fear

Published in the Home News Tribune 9/13/01


SAYREVILLE — White smoke from New York City lingered at the edges of the sky surrounding this bedroom town, and speculation hovered in the hallways and classrooms of its high school.

Rumors spread and grew of a missing football coach, missing parents, terrorist confessions, commercial airlines shot down by American fighters, predictions by Nostradamus.

Students and teachers, nearly all of whom knew somebody directly affected by the attack and many of whom were affected themselves, realized early Wednesday that many of the stories were likely untrue.

But they also realized it could be days before some of their questions could be answered.

“Yesterday, there was confusion,” said Michelle Murphy, who teaches Spanish at the school. “Today, it’s more anger and distrust.”

For many at Sayreville War Memorial High School, a P.A. announcement late Tuesday morning was the first notice that something was wrong. And principal Jim Brown asked students whose parents worked in the World Trade Center — at least 45 youngsters — to gather in the library.

Even without hearing the news, Spanish teacher Gwen Grossling said she was sure then that the buildings were gone.

“It’s more of an innocence lost — for the adults too,” Grossling said.

Shantai Dixon, whose father worked on the 12th floor of the second building to fall and whose mother worked nearby, didn’t learn her parents were safe until late Tuesday night.

As Dixon began telling her story during history class, another girl asked that the noisy air conditioner be turned off. The sunny classroom grew warmer, but no one complained.

Dixon’s classmates fell silent as she told how her mother and father frantically tried to reach each other, then walked miles together to the nearest train back to New Jersey. No one said a word when she was done.

“She said there were so many people helping each other and being nice to each other,” Dixon said. “You almost never see that from New Yorkers.”

The conversation also turned to the attackers and what should be done.

“Is there anything that could even out what they did to us?” Michael Ratajczyk asked. None of his classmates answered.

Students worried over airport security. One of the hijacked airplanes left from nearby Newark International Airport.

“When you go anywhere else, they open up your luggage,” said Lauren Reingold. “Here, you just walk right through.”

Angela Tomczyk, who taught the class, said she expected that would change quickly.

In other classes at the high school, work went on as normal after a few minutes of discussion.

“I didn’t know how we could possibly teach anything today, but the kids are just going on,” Grossling said.

Maurice Elias, a professor of child psychology at Rutgers University, said even for very young children, one question will remain with them the rest of their lives.

“Where were you when the World Trade Center crumbled to the ground?”

Elias said parents and teachers must discuss the attacks directly and make it clear that the emotional and physical aftermath for the nation could take weeks to resolve. The memories of young and old, he said, are irrevocably changed.

“This is a critical event in the lives of kids. The World Trade Center Towers are a very visible symbol. Most kids know what they are, and they’re gone,” Elias said. “Parents can’t pretend this hasn’t happened, and they need to let kids understand that this is an act of evil.”

Charles Maderal asked his classmates how many of them had been to the top of the World Trade Center. Fewer than half the 16 sophomores and juniors raised their hands.

Matt Lewandowski was not among them.

“I guess I won’t now.”


1 Comment

  1. DaveCarr said,

    Thanks for sharing this. I have a feeling that several people our age have a variation of “Teacher Who went Against Orders” and told the truth. John Seeley, Hostory and Political Sceince Teacher did it for us.

    One of the most enduring things I’ve learned about the nature of tragedy since 9/11 is the way in which the unreal abstraction becomes flesh. Who among us can conjure up an image of 3,000+ human beings, dead or alive? The number seems unreal. Incomprehensible . But then as time passes and we learn the names, meet the relatives, tragedy become more defined. The Infinite abyss suddenly becomes a seaof recognizable, quantifiable faces and tragedy begins anew.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing.

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